Airline Credit Cards

Airline Credit CardsAirline credit cards let you earn miles that you can redeem for free flights and other travel perks.

Airline credit cards reward you for travel purchases you make with airlines. You can use the rewards you earn towards free flights and enjoy other travel benefits. This guide explains how airline credit cards work, how to compare airline credit cards, and how to maximize your rewards on an airline credit card. If you’re undecided, this guide will also help you figure out whether an airline credit card is right for you.

Rates last updated March 26th, 2017
Intro APR for Balance Transfer APR for Purchases ( Purchase Rate ) Annual fee
Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard
Earn 50,000 bonus miles and enjoy the current 0% p.a. for 12 months
0% Intro APR for 12 months (with minimum of $5 or 3% balance transfer fee) 16.49%, 20.49% or 23.49% Variable $0 p.a. annual fee for the first year ($89 p.a. thereafter) Go to site More info

Have we missed anything in the comparison table? Tell us

  • If the provider quotes a different rate to the one above please let us know

What’s in this guide?

Back to top

How do airline credit cards work?

Airline credit cards are a type of rewards credit card that pays miles on your purchases. For example, your credit card might pay 1 mile per dollar in purchases. Once you accumulate enough miles, you can use your rewards to purchase a flight. The number of rewards required for a flight varies by airline, flight, dates, and the seat you choose.

Your credit card might pay a higher number of rewards for certain purchases – such as airline-specific purchases or travel purchases – and a lower number of miles on all other purchases. You can maximize the rewards you get by using your credit card for the purchases that earn the most miles.

Back to top

Affiliated vs. non-affiliated airline credit cards

Affiliated airline credit cards. Some airline credit cards are affiliated with a specific airline – you earn the most rewards when you buy tickets for that airline. Non-airline purchases will a lower level of rewards (and might not earn rewards at all). To maximize those points, you’ll need to be a member of the airline’s frequent flyer scheme (which is usually free to join). As a member of the frequent flyer program, you’ll earn additional miles on flights with the airline even if you don’t pay with your credit card. Affiliated airline credit cards can also come with additional perks like free checked baggage and access to airport lounges.

Non-affiliate airline credit cards and general travel rewards credit cards pay a higher amount of rewards on all travel purchases, while other purchases earn a lower amount of rewards. For example, a card may pay 3X points on travel purchases, including airline tickets, and just one point per dollar on everything else. With non-affiliated airline credit cards, you may be able to use your rewards with a variety of airline partners instead of just a single airline. You may also be able to transfer your rewards to another frequent flyer program, sometimes with no conversion fee.

Back to top

How to compare airline credit cards

There are dozens of airline credit cards to choose from. Choosing the right airline credit card is key to earning enough rewards to use for a free flight. Here are some factors to consider as you compare airline credit cards.

  • Airline. Choose a credit card affiliated with the airline you use for the majority of your flights. If you tend to fly on different airlines, a non-affiliated airline credit card is a better choice. That way, you can earn miles/points regardless of the airline that you use.
  • Signup bonus. Many airline credit cards offer a signup bonus to new cardholders who spend a certain amount of money on purchases within the first few months of having your credit card. Some airline credit cards have signup bonuses with enough rewards to pay for a free flight or automatically put you in the airline’s elite status tier for that calendar year.

As well as the signup bonus itself, consider whether you can actually meet the spending requirements needed to earn the bonus. Don’t get in over your head; choose a credit card only if you currently spend enough money each month to meet the spending requirement.

  • Rewards categories. The rewards program itself will be another major factor to consider as you pick an airline credit card. The card you choose should pay airline rewards in the categories where you spend the most. Some airline credit cards have simple rewards programs that pay a flat amount of points or miles for every dollar you purchase. This type of card is a good option for a person who just wants to casually earn rewards through normal credit card use. Other airline credit cards have a tiered rewards program structure where various types of purchases earn rewards at different rates. These credit cards require you to put more thought and strategy into your credit card spending, but they also present the opportunity to earn more miles. That means you can earn a free flight much faster.
  • Foreign transaction fees. Many credit cards charge a fee when you make purchases in currency other than US dollars. The fee is a percentage of the transaction, typically 3%. These fees will apply whether you’re traveling overseas or just using an online store based outside the USA. Look for a credit card with no foreign transaction fee to avoid this fee completely.
  • Annual fee. The best airline credit cards have an annual fee. Some cards may waive the fee in the first year, allowing you to enjoy all the benefits without the additional cost. If you choose a credit card that features an annual fee, make sure the card’s benefits outweigh the annual cost. Otherwise, you’re better off choosing a credit card that doesn’t charge an annual fee.
  • Additional perks. Free checked baggage, no foreign transaction fees, priority boarding and free seat upgrades are just a few perks that make an airline credit card much more beneficial. It can take several months to earn enough rewards to redeem for a flight. In the meantime, the extra perks can make the card worthwhile.

Compare popular airline credit cards

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card

  • Intro offer: Get 30,000 miles after you spend your first $1000 within 3 months of opening your account.
  • Annual fee: $95 (waived for the first year)
  • Miles: 2 miles per $1 on all ticket purchases, 1 mile per $1 on all other purchases.
Benefits
  • Priority boarding.
  • One free checked bag.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • 10,000 point bonus if you spend $25,000 or more in one year.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card

  • Intro offer: Get 40,000 miles after you spend your first $1000 within 3 months of opening your account.
  • Annual fee: $99
  • Miles: 2 miles per $1 on all southwest purchases and at participating hotels and car rental agencies, 1 mile per $1 on all other purchases.
Benefits
  • No foreign transaction fees,
  • Companion pass status after earning 110,000 points or completing 100 one-way flights (companion pass status allows you to bring a guest on your Southwest flight at no additional charge).

Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard®

  • Intro offer: Get 30,000 miles after you spend your first $1000 within 3 months of opening your account.
  • Annual fee: $95 (waived for the first year)
  • Miles: 2 miles per $1 on all American Airlines purchases, 1 mile per $1 on all other purchases.
Benefits
  • 1 free checked bag for you and up to 4 other people on your reservation.
  • Priority boarding.
  • Discounts on in-flight food and beverages.

British Airways Visa Signature® Card

  • Intro offer: Get 50,000 avios (british airways club currency) after you spend your first $1000 within 3 months of opening your account.
  • Annual fee: $95
  • Avios: 3 avios per $1 on all american airlines purchases, 1 avios per $1 on all other purchases.
Benefits
  • No foreign transaction fees,
  • Free travel together ticket after spending $30,000 in one year (a travel together ticket allows you to bring a guest on your british airways flight at no additional charge).
Back to top

Will an airline rewards credit card work for you?

While the ability to earn miles and free flights appeals to everyone with a bit of wanderlust, an airline credit card isn’t for everyone. An airline credit card might work best for you if:

  • You have excellent credit. Credit card issuers give the best credit cards to consumers with a history of paying their bills on time and managing their debt well. If you don’t have a great credit score, work on improving your credit before you apply for an airline credit card.
  • You pay your balance in full each month. As with any rewards credit card, paying your balance in full is the best way to get the full benefit of your airline credit card, especially if the credit card charges an annual fee. Carrying a balance will cause you to pay interest that can offset the rewards you earn from your credit card.
  • You are loyal to one airline. Since airline credit cards are tied to a specific airline, the card works best when you have a preferred airline that you use for most of your flights. You won’t mind that you need to use that airline brand to earn rewards or that your rewards are most valuable when you choose that airline or one of its partners.
Back to top

How to maximize your airline rewards

The more rewards you can earn and the faster you can earn them, the sooner you can accumulate book your free flight. Once you’ve been approved for the airline credit card of your choice, here are some ways to maximize your rewards.

  • Earn the signup bonus. First, make sure you choose a credit card that offers a signup bonus. The bigger the bonus, the better. Then, tailor your spending so you earn the bonus. That may mean using that credit card exclusively for everything you possibly can for the bonus qualifying period.

If your credit limit isn’t large enough to pay accommodate the spending necessary to earn the signup bonus, you may have to make frequent payments to free up additional credit. For example, if your credit limit is $3,000, but you need to spend $5,000 to earn the spending balance, you’ll have to pay off your credit card balance at least once to free up funds for more spending.

  • Maximize your spending in the highest earning categories. If your airline credit card pays more rewards on certain types of purchases, make sure you use your card for those purchases as much as possible. For example, if your card pays double points on restaurant purchases, make sure you use it every time you dine out. You’ll earn airline rewards much faster by focusing on the categories that earn double and triple miles versus those that earn just one point or mile per dollar.
  • Book with the airline directly. You may be used to using an online travel agency website like Expedia or Orbitz to book your travel because it allows you to search for the best prices. However, many airline credit cards do not pay miles on purchases made with online travel booking tools. Instead, book your flight directly through the airline to earn rewards on your flight purchase.
  • Reach elite status. As you earn more miles with the airline’s frequent flyer program, you have the opportunity to reach elite status. As your frequent flyer status increases, you earn more miles per flight. “Elite” miles are not always redeemable for flights, but instead help you reach a frequent flyer status that rewards you with additional perks like free first class upgrade, priority boarding and mileage bonus. The mileage bonuses you earn with elite status helps you earn free flights much faster.
Back to top

Drawbacks of airline credit cards

While airline credit cards have the potential to provide big benefits, there are some drawbacks to consider before you apply. Understanding the potential drawbacks can help you use an airline credit card to your advantage.

  • You may not be able to transfer miles to another airlines. With airline credit cards, the rewards you earn are often tied to a specific airline. Certain airline carriers may not fly to your desired destination, particularly international destinations. As well, you may not be able to transfer your rewards to an airline that does offer the flight you want. In that way, your airline credit card can be a bit restricting.
  • You may lose points in converting. Some frequent flyer programs let you transfer miles you’ve earned on another carrier’s airline credit card. If your card does allow you to transfer points to another airline or frequent flyer program, you may lose some points in the conversion.
  • You may be responsible for taxes and fees. Even after you’ve accumulated enough rewards to cover your flight, your airline’s reward program may require you to pay for taxes and fees on your flight. Depending on the carrier, these fees can be as high as the flight itself. You’re still saving money, as you don’t have to pay for the flight, but it’s important to know that the flight may not be as “free” as you assumed.
  • Some flights may not be available. While most airline credit cards now tout “no blackout dates,” that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a seat on the flight. Airlines only release a certain number of seats to customers paying with miles. You can expect certain dates, like holidays or spring break, to book fast. Book your travel as far in advance as possible for the best chance at getting a seat.
  • Miles can be devalued. Airlines can change mileage values, upping the number of miles you need to book a flight. Fortunately, if you’ve already booked a flight at the time of the program change, you should be able to keep your flight without having to pay extra miles. However, if you were saving up to redeem for a future flight, you’ll have to spend a little more to reach the miles you need.
Back to top

Mistakes to avoid with an airline credit card

Avoid these critical mistakes when you’re using an airline credit card.

  • Not paying your balance in full each month. Interest rates on airline credit cards tend to be higher than the rates on regular credit cards. You could end up paying more in interest than you’ve earned in rewards, which makes the miles you’ve earned worth a lot less. By paying your balance in full each month, you avoid paying interest on your credit card.
  • Paying late. Late payments are bad not only because they increase the cost of having a credit card and can potentially damage your credit score, but also because they can mean you forfeit your miles. Depending on the terms of your reward program, you may forfeit your rewards with just one missed payment. You don’t want to lose all your hard-earned points from something as easily avoided as a late payment.
  • Using your card for transactions that don’t earn rewards. Your airline credit card won’t pay miles on cash advances or balance transfers. Use another credit card for these transactions and save your airline credit card for purchases that will allow you to earn airline miles.
Back to top

Frequently asked questions

Will I earn miles if I transfer my balance to an airline credit card?

Typically no, you will not earn any miles for transferring a balance to an airline credit card.

Do all airline credit cards charge a fee?

Unlike other rewards cards, airline cards generally all charge an annual fee of $75 to $125.

Will the miles I earn expire?

Sometimes yes, but not always. It’s important that you read the credit card agreement entirely so you know what to expect.

Back to top
Was this content helpful to you? No  Yes

US Credit Card Offers

Learn about our information service
Barclaycard CashForward World MasterCard
Barclaycard CashForward World MasterCard

APR

14.99
TO
24.99

Annual fee

0 For the first year
More info
Credit One Bank® Platinum Visa®
Credit One Bank® Platinum Visa®

APR

15.90
TO
24.40

Annual fee

0 For the first year
More info
Target REDcard Credit Card
Target REDcard Credit Card

APR

23.15

Annual fee

0 For the first year
More info
Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard
Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard

APR

16.49
TO
23.49

Annual fee

0 For the first year
More info
Back to top

Read more on this topic

Ask a Question

You are about to post a question on finder.com

  • Do not enter personal information (eg. surname, phone number, bank details) as your question will be made public
  • finder.com is a financial comparison and information service, not a bank or product provider
  • We cannot provide you with personal advice or recommendations
  • Your answer might already be waiting – check previous questions below to see if yours has already been asked

Disclaimer: At finder.com we provide factual information and general advice. Before you make any decision about a product read the Product Disclosure Statement and consider your own circumstances to decide whether it is appropriate for you.
Rates and fees mentioned in comments are correct at the time of publication.
By submitting this question you agree to the finder.com privacy policy.

feedback